5 of my favourite data viz talks from Outlier 2021
I was given the opportunity to attend the inaugural Outlier 2021 conference hosted by the Data Visualization Society. It featured 41 inspirational talks given by people who work across different industries, each with unique and varying levels of experience in their data visualisation specialisms.
There were so many talks to choose from, but I’ve narrowed down five that will help to reframe how you think about the process of creating impactful data visuals.
1. How do we translate cultural experiences into data stories?
The talented team at Kontinentalist create engaging data stories that unpack cultural experiences to gain a better understanding of cultural trends.
In their talk, I learnt the following tips to create a compelling data story that translates other cultures:
Find an angle that is proudly niche
If you are translating your own cultural experience, do it with pride and communicate it with an urgency that suggests if you don’t tell your story about your experiences then other people won’t be able to either.
Explore a particular angle of interest in-depth, rather than being too wide-ranging in exploring a number of angles at surface level.
This can be something as simple as introducing one lesser-known artefact or phenomenon from your culture and communicating it in a way that educates and informs a wider audience from outside of your culture.
Unpack diversity within your angles to explain how certain phenomena are experienced within that culture.
In this example, chillis provided an excellent window for exploring Asian cuisines and the influence that chillis have upon many dishes.
The author began his analysis by asking ‘was spicy food popular in Asia?’. But the yes-no nature of the question provided added complications to finding a definitive answer to something not comprehensively documented, so he refined his analysis to explore ‘what ways spiciness – in particular, chillis – were experienced in Asia’, which was more open-ended and allowed for unpacking the answers in a less binary fashion.
It’s a common myth that the Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong mostly wears pink shirts. After collecting data on all the shirt colours he’d worn during PM speeches it was revealed that his most commonly worn colour was actually white.
Quantify the intangible
Some cultural phenomena might have a concept that is quantifiable (e.g. the popularity of different noodle brands).
But even if there isn’t an obvious quantifiable metric, you can translate the qualitative stuff by providing a rich visual experience via maps, audio or illustrations to convey the theme, atmosphere and cultural significance of your story’s topic.
In the below example, colours were used to convey the different dimensions of flavour used in Asian cuisine. Additionally a packed circle chart was used to visualise common ingredients in chilli dishes with chords connecting circled ingredients that go well together.
Balance accuracy and understanding to ensure that the data is well presented and easy to understand.
The above visualisation of ‘ingredients that go with chilli’ is actually a condensed version of more than 100 different bubbles that had to be indexed on a scale of between 1 to 9 flavours (such as ‘sweet and sour’).
While this is a less accurate representation of the very distinct flavours that exist within these many ingredient combinations, the authors felt this struck the right balance between beauty and simplicity. They were able to provide more detail through the illustrations and text boxes that more curious readers could explore.
Providing a clear and transparent methodology and documenting every step of the process behind how you arrived at your visualisations will help balance accuracy with understanding for your audience even more.
Find a common ground
It can be easy to over-explain when trying to tell a story about one culture to an audience outside of that culture.
Here, they recommend anchoring the angle of the cultural experience that you’re trying to analyse to a more universal sentiment.
In the talk, they used an example of relating the cultural tradition of new year fortune telling to people’s universal anxiety about the future and our well wishes for loved ones, or of the popularity of instant noodles in Asia to every culture’s respective love for certain comfort foods.
2. 3D Geo DataViz: From Insight to Data-Art
Hosted by Craig Taylor (Senior Data Visualisation Design Manager, Ito World)
Craig and his team at Ito World create narrative-driven and cinematic-looking 3D visualisations.
Craig’s talk focused on how he and his team create insight-driven visualisations that reveal how the systems we interact with impact our lives. In his talk, he explained that producing this type of visualisation requires that you:
Include granular data, since it yields more interesting results. For example, for Ito World’s project Transit In Motion, the dataset for New York City included 14.8 million locations recorded per day, 4,488 unique bus trips, and 2GB of CSV files.
Focus on the patterns that your data is creating over time. For Transit in Emotion, this involved analysing the volume of transit usage over the period of one month.
Make your visualisation’s designabstract to highlight the rhythm of your data over time. In the past, Craig has used a variety of spheres, cuboids, and meshes to portray what city-wide transit in motion looks like.
If you’re interested in making 3D data art, Houdini and Blender (which is free) are recommended.
3. DataViz, the Unempathetic Art
Hosted by Mushon Zer Aviv
Mushon is a Tel Aviv based designer, researcher, educator, and media activist. His talk highlighted how data viz can lack empathy, and takes inspiration from the following quote:
“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
— Mother Teresa
To ensure that your work is empathetic, Mushin says you must be aware of:
Dark data viz, which risks tone-deafness and minimising important topics.
In 2015, Mathew Lucas produced a series of infographics showing the impact of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Although the graphics were visually pleasing, this data viz also sparked debate, with some questioning how design should be used to aestheticise a horrific event.
How an appeal to empathy can be misleading
Mushon cites Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom who says empathy often shines a spotlight on the individual and can be biased towards those who look like us. We find it easier to empathise with individuals, not with the masses.
He also references a study from Paul Slovic in the talk, which further illustrates this idea with what he calls ‘statistical numbing’ whereby audiences seem to empathise more with individuals than with larger groups.
In Slovic’s research he found that charity donations in response to descriptions about identifiable individuals earned more than double the donation value in response to descriptions about statistical lives (i.e. groups of individuals that weren’t personally identifiable). Sadly, the value of donations even decreased when statistics were presented alongside individual descriptions in the story.
Affectiveempathy vs cognitive empathy
According to Simon Baron-Cohen, affective empathy, which is rooted in emotion, means that you’re able to feel the same emotion or feel your own distress in response to another’s pain.
Cognitive empathy, which is more rational, means that you’re able to understand someone’s perspective or imagine what it’s like in another person’s shoes.
Muson relates these two types of empathy to Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between two ways of thinking:
Tier 1thinking: thinking automatically, quickly, with little or no effort and sense of voluntary control. Tier 2thinking: allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it. These type of operations are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.
It is said that Tier 2 often contextualises the thinking of Tier 1 to inform a person’s decision-making. In visualisation, the pre-attentive attributes (below) are how we use vision to communicate between Tier 1 and Tier 2. So here Mushon asks ‘can we think of empathy as an additional pre-attentive attribute for visualisations?’ because we do not get to control or rationalise it, but it can inform our more deliberate decisions.
How to scale compassion by appealing to both types of empathy
The above image is a powerful visualisation of gun deaths in America during a single year. It begins by illustrating the life arc of one person being cut in the middle vs how many more years they could have lived for.
Focussing on a single individual’s life being cut short appeals to the viewer’s affective empathy or tier 1 thinking, aka the more emotional response, before the impact of another 11,422 deaths are visualised in the same manner as below.
Raising awareness is not enough
Data visualisations have the power to explore and explain important stories about the world.
However, it’s not enough to just say something is wrong with the world. If we have built that message well, then we should also direct that message towards the path of change and actionable insights.
4. Data points are people too
Hosted by Bronwen Robertson, Joachim Mangilima, Saja Othman, Zdeněk Hynek
Data4Change is a non-profit organisation based in London that connects social change organisations with designers, journalists, and technologists to collaboratively create data-driven solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems. This talk focused on many of their projects which have helped to deliver change in countries around the world.
An example of this is ‘A Bride With A Doll‘, which focused on the issue of child marriage. The team designed a workshop kit and a storybook that could be read from both directions, reflecting emotional experiences, based on data insights from the community.
5. Mind Games: The psychology behind designing beautiful, effective, and impactful data viz
Hosted by Amy Alberts (Senior Director, User Research, Tableau)
This talk outlined practical guidelines which can help you predict where people look at certain parts of data viz – for example, jagged lines and bar graphs are effective at drawing the user’s attention.
Amy’s team at Tableau have previously employed eye-trackingsoftware to discover where people were focusing, gaze plots to qualitatively and quantitatively show where the eye is fixated, heatmaps to show areas of high visual tension, and gaze opacity maps to highlight areas that people give less attention.
According to their findings, the biggest attention grabbers in data visualisation are:
BANS (Big Ass Numbers) – Our eyes are drawn to large visual elements such as big text. Below is a gaze opacity map of a dashboard with big numbers.
Colour – Visual contrast relative to other areas generates attention.
Humans and maps – Our brains are hardwired to notice other humans, so when we see human-like figures in visualisations, we are automatically drawn to them. If maps and humans are relevant to your data, it is worth capitalising on this to draw attention.
Design with intent and be mindful of the context that you control. Use clear titles and high contrast elements, ethically making use of the psychological phenomenon known as the priming effect. This will help to ensure that your audience clearly understand the story that you are trying to tell with your data.
The Outlier conference was incredibly informative and packed with so much knowledge about how to create culturally relevant, socially aware content that’s also visually impressive and effective in communicating concepts.
At the ideation stage, think like a journalist would and try to figure out how you could reach a headline or story that would evoke certain emotions such as shock, anger, sadness, happiness, or outrage.
Your subject line really is absolutely key as it is the only factor that will decide whether a journalist would open your email or not.
Don’t do a click-bait headline. Journalists see through it and will delete it ASAP.
Be specific. ‘Manchester is the most popular city for shopping’ rather than ‘The 10 best cities for shopping in the UK’. Journalists want to know immediately what the story is.
Front-load keywords in your subject line – the most important keywords at the front.
When prospecting and refining your pitch, check recent articles by the journalist and see when they were published to gauge when to send your pitch. Journalists work shifts, so 8am Monday-Friday might not be the only pitching-time option.
Speakers: Laura D’Amato, Surena Chande, Jon Buchan, Chris Czermak, Sarah Fleming, Jasmine Granton, Louise Parker, Laura Wilson.
When going out with a reactive piece of content, always get a second pair of eyes (preferably the client) beforehand.
Having a diverse set of skills and experiences on your team is great for coming up with ideas, for checking campaigns, and for ensuring that what you put out is ethical.
Be honest and believe in your abilities with brands. It will make them trust you a lot more.
The speakers had different opinions about whether you need to put out a campaign or not. At the end of the day, it depends on your or your client’s expectations. As long as this is clearly communicated and that you agree with what you want the results to be, you can choose how to get there.
Verve’s take on it is that big campaigns allow us to reach out to a large panel of journalists with in-depth research and therefore get the attention of top-tier publications. However, we always like to mix this with a more reactive approach to target relevant publications for the client.
As long as your content is relevant and resonates with your target audience, the format is not the most important.
Your content needs to be suitable for social media too as it’s a big part of journalists’ KPIs.
Diversity and Inclusion in Marketing, One Year On – Why Has Nothing Changed?
Speaker: Azeem Ahmad, Digital Marketing Lead at Azeem Digital
Companies should ensure every leadership bonus is tied to D&I initiatives – if POC/women aren’t being paid fairly, neither should the leadership.
Start to measure and publicly release detailed yearly diversity data.
Introduce wage equity schemes to ensure women and POC are being paid on par with white counterparts.
Looking back at 2020:
8% average POC speaking representative at selected conferences. All were men.
6 in 10 believed their identity or ethnic background has affected their career opportunities.
58% said they were either unsure or disagreed that their workplace actively tried to address the diversity gap between POC/white staff, and 43% believed their organisation doesn’t have an inclusive culture.
2021: Why has nothing changed?
One in six fear they would lose their job if they got terms around race and ethnicity wrong, while 30% felt it would lead to disciplinaries.
Workers are more confident talking about death (38%) than race and ethnicity (29%) in the workplace.
Make sure it has different angles to go out with, to different journalists, different publications, and fits different niches. Don’t limit what you can achieve with your campaign.
Have on hand a rich variety of different assets: data, visuals, case studies, expert comments, and (if it’s relevant for them to provide them) client comments.
Writing a press release…
Personalise your pitch to the journalist. Use their name. Is it really relevant to them? Have they written about this subject before? What do they normally feature in the way of assets or case studies?
Cater what you include in your email according to what the publication typically covers. National newspapers tend to like gender breakdowns in data. Niche industry publications will want to talk about data relevant to the industry.
Use a subject line relevant to that publication and make sure it is effective. There are lots of tools out there that can analyse and score your subject line on its effectiveness. Try things out and experiment to see what works best.
Write according to the language and tone you see in the target publication: for example, do they write in a sensationalist tone or more factual?
Brief press releases are better for bigger publications. They are busier and the brief needs to be more to the point. Include all the key information that they need. Detailed press releases are better for niche publications. Detailed releases will be really relevant to them so they can have lots of detail.
Big national newspapers like case studies as it provides a first-hand experience of the subject in your release. Consider focusing your pitch around this case study if it’s strong enough. Otherwise, you can just mention that you have one on hand.
Including expert commentary – whether external or client – makes a journalist’s job easier. They won’t have to search it out themselves if they need it.
The more you provide, the less a journalist has to do. It’s easier for them to take all your assets and get a story live if they don’t have to keep referring back to you.
Great accessibility is also great UX. Great UX has long-term SEO benefits for your brand and builds brand loyalty. If your website is accessible to everyone, it makes sense that more people will come back to use it and recommend it.
There are various kinds of disabilities you need to be aware of when building your website. These include not only sensory, cognitive, or motor, but situational, temporary, and socioeconomic. A temporary disability might be that you’re in a space where you can’t listen to a video out loud and need subtitles. Temporary includes carpal tunnel syndrome or a concussion. Socio-economic disabilities might include poor wifi, which impacts load speed and limits what a user can access.
There are different things you need to consider to make your website more accessible. The main ones highlighted in this talk are: improving your site’s colour contrast; making images accessible (e.g. with alt text); ensuring accessible navigation (e.g. making your website conveniently accessible with just a keyboard); and using the right tone of voice (e.g. using plain English).
There are free tools available online to assess your website’s current accessibility and help you to improve it. One example is WebAIM’s contrast checker.
In the UK alone, £17.1 billion is lost every year due to inaccessible websites. You are also legally obliged to make your website accessible.
How to devise a content strategy following a content audit
Speaker: Jess Peace, Senior Content Producer at NeoMam Studios
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to content marketing, particularly where your target audience is concerned. Your business goals should highlight areas of focus, which will help to set your content strategy’s priorities.
Before trying to define what content you want to create, first define the audience that it is for. This will help to make the content more relevant and valuable for them, and increase the likelihood of greater engagement and more conversions. To do this, ask questions like: Who do you want to reach? Are you looking to expand your audience or target a new one? What does your audience care about?
Try applying the ‘snog-marry-avoid’ framework when combing through existing pages during a content audit. It can be defined like this:
Snog: content that works well in meeting KPIs but could be working harder Marry: content that works really well in meeting your KPIs and is a prime example of the kind of content that you should be creating more of Avoid: content that doesn’t really hold any benefit, for example, it drives no traffic, has low engagement and/or is outdated
The importance of consumption for creativity: we work in an inspiring industry full of creative case studies, but also pay attention to what’s outside of the industry, and outside of your realms of interest in the form of blogs, podcasts, artwork, newsletters, TikTok, inspiring people, Reddit, etc.
When your only goal is earning links, it can be easy to forget about core PR values, like looking after your client’s brand.
At the ideation stage…
Make sure you have a tight methodology and strong data:
In an age where consumer trust in the media is low, we owe it to the public to provide the correct information.
Weak and untrustworthy data will negatively impact your relationship with journalists.
It upholds certain digital PR standards. It’s not ethical or good for the industry as a whole to provide false data.
Consider the ethical implications and ask yourself:
Could the campaign be harmful, e.g. add to harmful stereotypes or upset a group of people?
Are there opportunities for a journalist to take your story and turn it into something harmful? Is it harming a conversation taking place in culture and could it take the media’s attention away from more important conversations in that space?
Is it inclusive? Are the designs thoughtful and inclusive as well? Not only does inclusive design reflect well on the brand and include more people in its audience, but gives us some power in the media to enact real change in representation.
Think about brand guardianship, too:
Be honest with your client. They need to be aware of their limitations when it comes to the type of content they can put out. A campaign can’t be hypocritical. Where are they an authority and where are they not?
You’ve been trusted with their brand. Think about how you communicate with journalists on their behalf and prevent any backlash or negative attention.
It was another fantastic online sharing session, the only disappointment being that we didn’t have quite enough time for Laura to answer all your questions in the Q&A sessions. But happily Laura, with the help her two of our outreach starlets, Maddi and Elisabeth, have taken the time to answer your questions…
How long should I wait before recontacting the people who didn’t open the email or didn’t write anything about it yet?
We would usually follow up between 3 and 7 days after the first email. Some journalists were happy with the follow-up after 3 days, but others thought it was too little time and asked us to wait a week before reaching out again. Usually it’s because they didn’t have time to look at it yet, because they get a lot of pitches.
Unless it’s a very urgent and relevant story, we wouldn’t follow-up within less than 2 days though otherwise it feels very pushy.
Do you handcraft the subject lines with 20+ variations for every individual email? Or group in similar publications (tabloids vs. national news sites, etc.) with the same subject line?
We would definitely change the subject up for different publications, but more for groups such as tabloids, national news sites or more niche publications. We also adapt it depending on the type of journalists we contact, looking at how they write, if it’s serious or more light-hearted.
If there is a journalist that we find particularly fitted for the story, we might look at their previous headlines and tailor it to them specifically.
How many hours go into that research? looking at 3500 film scripts?
The campaign Profanity on Film took longer than usual, since it was quite a lengthy process, and was quite technical. This one took about 2 weeks of work. We had to:
Scrape all the movies scripts from various sites
Scrape actor/actress profiles on IMDB
Get data from the IMDb API
Calculate words per actor, character and movie
and then just some final data formatting
Luckily we work with a team of data wizards who handled this challenge like pros.
Journalists have said that they prefer tailored, personalised emails, how do you manage doing this to scale without it being too time consuming?
We obviously personalise our emails with the journalists name but what we focus on is offering them a good and relevant story, so we avoid the fluff as much as possible. If we have a previous relationship with them or if we contacted them via Twitter, we will have a short personalised message but not much more as it can also feel a bit fake. It is also the feedback that we have received from journalists through the years – they prefer getting into the story rather than trying to pretend you have a relationship if you don’t.
But sometimes, if we feel like the journalist is a great fit, it is worth taking a bit of time to research the style and headline from previous articles to try and match it to the pitch.
How many times would you follow up with a journalist?
We usually don’t send more than one follow-up. We only send a second follow-up if we can see through Buzzstream or Hunter’s email opening tracker that the journalist has opened the email several times but still not written up an article yet. This would just be a very short email to say “just wondering if you were interested in this”. Also if we think that a story is very fitting but the journalist hasn’t opened the email at all, we might push a bit more with a second follow-up. More than two will be too much.
How do you ensure that the journalist will trust the data you provide?
Including a methodology section in the pitch email to explain how the research or data was conducted definitely helps. That way the journalist can see whether what you’re presenting is reliable or a good representation. It is also important to quote our sources. As we have said before, if you don’t have the authority, borrow it from someone who does and make sure to tell the journalist about it.
Make sure to familiarise yourself with the data prior to sending out the emails to journalists and check anything that doesn’t look right in case the journalists have any questions.
Do you think it’s easier to get links from journalists compared to other websites? Most of my work is outreaching to sites related to our industry, and I find them very difficult to get links from.
National publications have a different way to approach the news and the content they publish than niche websites: they have to be more accessible and they have to write much more content. It makes it easier for content marketers to approach them. Usually when outreaching to specialised websites, we wouldn’t send the same email as we would to national newspapers’ journalists, but would make it more personal and send it in a “I thought you might be interested in this research” tone. You also need to make sure that you bring something to these websites who are already specialised in a particular topic.
outREACH Online: Q&A’s from our Expert Outreach Panel
Our expert outreach panel were a massive highlight of the outREACH Online Conference. The all female panel included Gisele Navarro, Carrie Rose, Ruth Barrett and Laura D’Amato. We were so fortunate to have them share their tips and experiences. So much was covered in the session that we were unable to get through all the questions asked by our audience.
Happily, these wonderful women took the time after the conference to answer your questions, so sit back, relax and take in some serious knowledge…
How do you forecast ROI when pitching campaigns?
Carrie Rose: Usually, we KPI on the following: Links (number of, traffic drive (organic not paid), and social shares) With our campaigns we have a process that delivers more than just links and therefore add KPIs for that. We base it off previous success – we know off the top of our head how many links we should expect based on the story, the angles, the outreach opportunities. We don’t KPI on number of followed/no followed links, revenue or organic traffic. Thats all out our hands (unless we run the whole marketing mix).
Ruth Barrett: We work backwards from an overall strategy and forecast, based on what we believe it will take to generate the results that the client wants, and in turn, the number of links we need to gain across the relevant sectors. The campaigns we deliver all depend on the allocated resource, the size of the campaign, the time being spent on the creation, the websites and publications it would be of interest to, the numbers of news hooks the piece has, and how long we plan to promote it for.
Laura D’Amato:We usually look at similar campaigns that we have done before to try to predict the results. We might not know exactly which journalist is going to cover it but we can replicate the outreach approach. On top of this, we make sure to have different potential headlines and stories so we can reach out to different journalists.
We also adapt our strategy for every client and every campaign depending on the current events happening in the media and in the world. For example, during the pandemic, it was harder to predict the ROI of a campaign due to journalists being asked to cover COVID-19 stories. On the other hand, we sometimes know of some events that will help with outreach. For example, when the Royal Wedding happened, we knew that our campaign about the royal family would get some good coverage.
I think you need a mix of experience and intuition to predict the ROI of a campaign and still, you can never be 100% sure.
Often, our clients feel obliged to get their PR team involved because we’ve used the term ‘PR’ and even more often those PR teams block us from doing link building in this way. How do you navigate digital PR conversations with a client’s PR team? I feel like I spend more time talking about what I do than actually doing it!
Gisele Navarro: We try to get as much information as possible off them beforehand: Can they put together a do-not-contact list for us? Are there any launches/campaigns they are working on that we need to be aware of to avoid overlap? What about anything they’ve got planned where we can support the message with our campaigns? Can we agree on a process for vetoing contacts that doesn’t require us to send target lists for sign-off every time?
We found that the more we can agree beforehand, the better as it reduces the back and forth once the campaigns are running.
Carrie Rose: This was the biggest barrier I faced in my previous role – we changed the use of the word PR to content marketing to show how we are different. We use it in all internal and external comms to prevent clash. The last thing we want is PR to be controlling our campaigns and content. However, more recently we’ve seen a shift in this. Where the power and control is in the digital PR/content marketings hands now.
Ruth Barrett:If a client has an internal PR team or external agency it’s vital that you help build a strong relationship with them. They can provide vital insight into the client, their customers and the business in general. I would ask to see their internal marketing plan to ensure there’s no overlap, and ask for their opinion on the campaigns you plan to create. You never know what great internal data or contacts they could provide to support it.
Laura D’Amato:The key is to build a relationship with the internal PR team of the clients. Early on, we try to arrange meetings with them to understand how they do their PR and what they are expecting from our work but we also remind them that we don’t have exactly the same goal. We are building links and therefore, we have completely different techniques than traditional PR. It is something that we explain from the very beginning, using case studies of similar clients we have worked with. From experience, a lot of people just don’t understand the difference.
Before launching a campaign, we prepare a short outreach strategy that we share with the PR team so they can have an idea of how we are going to approach journalists and the stories we are going out with.
It is important to remember that they have expectations and KPI’s too and it is normal for them to want to go out with a coherent brand message.
We have clients in so many different industries which means I’m often pitching very different journalists who specialise in different areas. I think this makes it a little more difficult to build strong relationships with them as there are not many who I pitch on a regular basis. What are your best tips for creating good relationships with journalists who you may not speak to regularly?
Gisele Navarro: I’ve got two simple tips for this, nothing flashy:
Tip 1: Don’t waste their time
A simple way to ensure you’re not wasting their time is to avoid pitching stories or content that you’re not at least 90% confident they will like to at least check out by themselves. Once they get back to you with questions or additional requests, do your best to be responsive and get all the information they need over to them quickly. Lastly, if you know that something they asked for is a no-go on your end, be open and honest about it – tell them and don’t string them along..
Tip 2: Remember their requests
If a journalist once told you that she needs images to be a certain size or that their site can’t host videos, make a note for yourself to ensure next time you keep those special considerations in mind from the get-go. It’s a simple thing that doesn’t cost you anything and will make a big difference to them.
Carrie Rose: Straight after sending them a story, follow them on twitter. They may recognise your name in their inbox and connect it to twitter. Follow their work, share their articles, like their posts. I have SO many friends online that I’ve never met before and this is the easiest way to create good relationships. But don’t come across spammy. Genuinely help them out and share their posts when they’re looking for stories or case studies, send them things they may need (rather than it being a one way relationship).
Ruth Barrett: I would follow them on Twitter and get a feel for the articles they write, their tone and the posts they share. Create lists on Twitter of the journalists in your target sectors, then using Tweetdeck you’ll have a stream on industry-specific articles and news to ensure you’re more informed before pitching to them.
Laura D’Amato: The only thing I can recommend here is to pitch the journalists good stories rather than to try to build relationships. I don’t think a journalist will take a story that he/she is not interested in just because you get along well. However, if you work on a good story and effective and relevant pitch, you have more chances to get people to cover your story.There are some other little things you can do though and that might help.
If you see that a journalist is active on Twitter and posts a lot of #journorequest, try to follow them and reply regularly.
Before starting your outreach, read the articles on the topic you are working on, it will only make it easier to write a good pitch.
Some journalists write on a lot of different topics, if you manage to become a point of reference for them, it will be easier to go back to them later on. For example, if you know one of your clients can give them relevant quotes or if you know they always need videos in their articles, etc.
How would you advise creating a bigger digital PR campaign with a small team (2-3)?
Carrie Rose: The number of people you have in a team shouldn’t matter, it’s all about how you think. Thinking bigger. Allocate each member a task/KPI something to own and think about what makes a campaign bigger? A social angle? Extra content to be used across other platforms?
Ruth Barrett:Delegate. Split out the tasks at hand and ensure everyone knows their role in the campaign. Communication is key. Make sure you’re not all pitching on mass together.
Laura D’Amato:If you are going to do a big campaign with a small team, you need to anticipate the time it will take you to produce your campaign (potentially analysing the data, designing or developing it) and make sure that you work on a topic that will still be newsworthy even if it takes you a bit longer than usual. There are a lot of evergreen topics that you can explore.
If you want to create a campaign around a topic that is timely, you can produce it in several steps and assets that you can outreach progressively.
Another solution is also to work with third parties like freelance designers or researchers… This obviously requires having a bigger budget.
Press releases – do you include in the first email or check interest before you send? And if so, attachment/ copy paste or link to press pack?
Carrie Rose: Always include the press release within the outreach email as the first email I send. Everything in one go – journalists don’t have time to waste. Make their lives easier (not harder).
Ruth Barrett:Some domains block attachments, plus it will take an absolute eon to send and be received. The end result is an annoyed journalist. Dropbox or WeTransfer are a great solution to this. Your Dropbox can contain everything a journalist needs to write the piece nicely signposted. Even better if you need to update any copy or visuals, it autosaves the latest file.
Laura D’Amato: My email serves as press release and I would never attach an extra document to avoid the email to end in the spam folder of the recipients. When sending the first email, I always make sure that the subject line and first sentences state clearly what the campaign is about and catch the interest of the journalist. Everyone in our team would tell you that we get the best results by getting straight to the point and stating the important information clearly in the body of the email.
What do you do if journalists ask for exclusivity on a piece?
Gisele Navarro:We’re always upfront and explain that we can’t offer exclusivity due to the nature of our campaigns. That being said, depending on where we are with the outreach, we might be able to halt promotion within a geographic region or a publishing vertical so that the journalist gets the exclusive for a set period of time. We also make a note for future reference reminding us to send stories to that journalist a week or two before we launch full promotion.
Carrie Rose: Give them exclusivity for 24 hours if its a good publication. As soon as their article goes live – push wide.
Ruth Barrett:Exclusives don’t really exist in the digital space like they used to. Once the piece is live, it’s no longer exclusive. If a journalist has asked for an exclusive I would find out how long they want it for. Anything over 48 hours I’d question, unless it’s a giant publication.
Laura D’Amato:If I don’t have leads yet, I explain that I have reached out to some journalists already but no one has picked up the story yet so I will hold off on outreach until they publish. I think it is important to give a deadline for them to publish before resuming outreach so they can plan accordingly and you don’t stop outreach for too long.
What’s your experience on sending emails with the attachments (the chain image on the subject line)? How do you fix this issue with people not trusting these types of emails?
Gisele Navarro:We embed images and GIFs into many of our emails in cases where showing the assets is important and never had issues with that. We do make sure images are no larger than 500px wide and we compress GIFs as much as possible to keep the file size low.
However, we don’t attach the press pack with all the assets into our emails as that could affect deliverability if it triggers spam filters or internal rules on email size set by the email administrator. Instead we use Dropbox Transfer so we can share a link for journalists to download all the assets on their end directly.
Carrie Rose:I put files and any attachments into dropbox folders – prevents it going into spam.
Ruth Barrett:As I mentioned before, don’t send attachments.
Laura D’Amato: I don’t recommend using attachments in email AT ALL as your email is likely to end up in the spam folder. There are a lot of platforms online to host your attachment like Dropbox or Google Photos and they are very easy to use both for you and the journalist.
Do you outreach as your agency or as the client?
Gisele Navarro: We’ve always promoted using our agency email addresses. It’s been almost 10 years now and we are confident that sticking to our @neomam.com address has allowed us to build hundreds of relationships with journalists and publications that now look forward to getting an email from our team.
Carrie Rose: As the agency – always.
Ruth Barrett: I’ve sent as the client in the past and it can work, but have gained better results being transparent about who I work for. It feels more natural and avoids any confusion.
Laura D’Amato: A bit of both, I don’t mention the agency except in my signature.
It is just really important to make clear that your client has created the campaign and this is why I always ask for a link and credit to the client’s website so there is no mistake.
In the UK it’s never been a problem as journalists work a lot with PR but I have noticed that for international outreach, you often have to explain the difference.
How many journalists are you addressing with a campaign on average?
Gisele Navarro: Our initial lists start with up to 70 sites and we expand upon it as the campaign develops based on what’s working and what’s not working. A final list could have around 200 contacts.
Carrie Rose: 300 ish (minimum).
Ruth Barrett:The number of journalists I contact would depend on the size of the campaign, the number of news hooks and how the campaign was going. I’ve gained national press from 150 emails before with no follow up emails, sometimes it just takes longer.
Laura D’Amato: As many as I think is relevant. It depends on how broad the campaign is. We can reach out to 300 journalists for a small asset or 1,000 or more for bigger ones with a lot of different angles. Very often, I will reach out to several journalists at one publication.
Do you have any tips for tracking down the right journalist to target?
Gisele Navarro: We always aim at finding journalists who:
Have covered the main topic or related stories in the past
Have worked with the format of our content (i.e. map)
Have written up stories based on content produced by other people
Have published content on the site within the last month
You might not be able to always find a journalist that meets the full criteria but the closer you can get to it, the stronger the contact.
We also make a point of finding alternative contacts who will fit one of those four points more than anybody else on the site:
A journalist that writes stories about similar topics more often than anybody else,
A journalist who has featured the format more often than anybody else
A journalist who covers stories based on PR-led campaigns more often than anybody else
A journalist who publishes content more regularly than anybody else on the site.
Carrie Rose: Get a list of 5 campaigns similar to yours and pull every media placement they landed. If they cover that, they will more than likely cover yours.
Ruth Barrett:Search for your target job title in Twitter and you’ll soon have a nifty list of journalists that have included it in their bio. If they haven’t included their email I’d recommend sending them a DM, pitching the campaign in one sentence, and asking for their email if they’re interested.
Laura D’Amato: I think it is important to have an analytical filter when you read the press to try to understand how the publications work and what they cover.
I always try to find the editors by using prospecting tools like Gorkana and then I will go on the publications I’m targeting and analyse different sections using keywords from my campaign. After this, I would search for the same keywords on Google to try and find less well-known sites.
Do you look at who has previously covered similar topics? Or by Job title on media databases?
Carrie Rose: Always similar topics – rarely by job title.
Ruth Barrett:Yes, Google News and Buzzsumo’s Content Explorer is great for looking at who’s recently covered a topic, and the traction it gained.
Laura D’Amato: I always try to start with the most relevant journalists and will go a bit broader if I think something would be interesting for a journalist but he/she doesn’t always write about the topic.
Would be great to know how many people you have working on those campaigns too please!
Gisele Navarro: We work in teams of two where one person is the lead for the campaign and another person supports with link reclamation/attribution requests.
Carrie Rose: Two people per campaign (a strategist and an exec for us) maybe 2 execs if its a big campaign.
Ruth Barrett:The number of people who work on a campaign depends on its size and the speed at which we need to gain results for the client. Ordinarily a single campaign would have a content manager, designer, developer and PR working on it. If it was a larger campaign then we may draft more resource in for any of these areas.
Laura D’Amato: We usually have at least 4 or 5 people working on producing the campaign (for example data analysts/researchers, designers, developers or project managers). We also have a team of creative people for directions on what the campaign should look like. When it comes to outreach we can have between 1 and 3 people working on the same campaign depending on how broad it is and how many angles we can go with at the same time without spamming the same journalists.
Thanks again to our panelists for being so generous with their time during and after the conference.
outREACH Online Conference: Q&A’s from Kim Bjørnqvist
Earlier this month we were unable to bring outREACH Conference to London due to Covid-19 restrictions, BUT, we didn’t let the pandemic hold us down! Instead we brought you outREACH Online Conference, which was even better than we could have imagined. We are so grateful to all our speakers who were able to join us for this slightly less conventional format – but it totally worked and judging by the feedback from participants, it is something we would definitely consider again for the future. If you were unable to join us for the day, you’ll be pleased to know we recorded all of the sessions, including talks from Rand Fishkin, Shannon McGuirk and Mark Johnstone. Take a look at them today!
The only problem we had was time! There wasn’t enough of it!! All of our speakers delivered rich and interesting talks, which were followed up with questions from the audience. And boy, did we get A LOT of questions. For that reason, we’ll be posting a series of follow-up blogs where our speakers have kindly taken the time to answer all the questions we were unable to get round to on 12th June, starting off with our first speaker of the day, the delightful, Kim BjÃ¸rnqvist.
Kim is the Associate Professor of Creativity and Communication at the School of Communication, Leadership and Marketing at Kristiania University College in Oslo. To say his talk set the bar high is an understatement as you can see from some of the tweets from the morning.
When we caught up with Kim after the conference he was keen to express his gratitude to the audience for their time, questions and kind feedback. His talk was distilled from what he would normally cover in the two day workshops he does on creativity, as well as the talks he gives on how to pitch ideas and creative writing/copywriting. It was quite the challenge for him to give a brief overview in such a short time on what is a quite complicated and fascinating subject – but he delivered nonetheless. If you are interested in finding more about this from the man himself he’d love to hear from you.
We asked Kim to answer a bunch of your questions from the conference, and here’s what he had to say…
Are there any books, podcasts, shows etc. on the creative process you would recommend?
Not as many as one would think. Unfortunately, most books about the subject of creativity fall into two categories; pretentious bullshit or self-promoting ‘look at me, how sensationally creative I am! Follow my rules, or go down the road to hell.’
I also like Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, a very hands on, refreshingly brash, typically American approach. There are some other good ones, but unfortunately they are in Norwegian.
For initial phases of pouring ideas in the bucket – do you go on until you are done or do you set a timer for adding a bit of creative pressure?
Definitely until you are done. You need a lot (100? 200?) crappy ideas to get to the really good ones. But remember to take 15 min breaks every 45 minutes. Leave the desk and take a walk, preferably outdoors.
I’m also a big fan of biometrics. Could you share any pioneers or resources on this topic?
You probably know more than me about this! My knowledge is limited to the very basic ideas. Here is an interesting link to a Norwegian company that is heavily into this.
Do you have any tips for running creativity/ideation sessions online as we have to do this a lot at the moment?
Not an easy subject – but, you need a leader/supervisor to run the process. Democracy is great in politics, not in an ideation process. Use breakout rooms as much as possible, 5 to 10 minute breakout sessions, before everyone gather together and present their stuff. The fact that zoom chooses breakout groups at random can be used to your advantage.
What do you do if you are not feeling creative?
Start creating something! Train yourself to start the process and force yourself to keep on, you will find that you quickly get into it. Like I said at the conference, creativity is a bit like sex in that respect!
What’s your favourite creative brainstorming activity?
Well, it’s not brainstorming! (In the sense of a group of people sitting around a table, discussing.) This favours the extroverts, and it is not always the extroverts that come up with the best ideas. My favourite is the post-it method: 5 minutes intense jotting down of ideas in silence, before each in turn are put up on the wall, then grouped and finally go through the realist and critic stage.
What do you do if you know you have a decent idea, but can’t seem to get that spur of creativity to see it through or form it properly?
Polish it in a team. Working with other people often bring you the missing elements.
Who is the person or persons that has inspired you the most?
Frank Zappa, genius musician and weird/crazy person. Beethoven, for never compromising. Picasso, for his limitless creativity.
What’s the perfect number of people for a brainstorm? Is it better for more people or a handful?
My favourite number is five, if you have to be six, divide into to groups. I prefer uneven numbers, because you avoid two equal fronts stalling the process.
After some time, one may start to doubt his own creative ideas. Any advice on how to keep interest in them and not ditch them?
Never throw any ideas away. Keep an archive. Use the creative circle I gave you in my talk. Find out which segments need to be strengthened in order to get rid of the doubt.
Do you think that some people are just inherently more creative? And can you teach creativity?
Some people may have a slight advantage, due to genes, upbringing, schools etc, but creativity is like a muscle, it can definitely be trained. But you need the proper methods. Can you teach creativity? I certainly hope so, since I’ve been doing it for decades!
Do you have any tips on how to handle limitations in the creative process? Like budget, resources, time, special tone of voice etc.
Look at limitations as possibilities. In my opinion, creativity blossoms if you work within limits. Maybe not if you are an artist, but certainly in the creative industries.
Thanks again to Kim for his time during and after the conference. We’ll be bringing you more Q&A follow ups from our amazing all female panel which consisted of Carrie Rose, Gisele Navarro, Ruth Barrett and Verve Search’s very own Laura D’Amato, as well as from Mark Johnstone, Shannon McGuirk and more over the next few days.
outREACH Workshop Video 1 – Creativity & Collaboration
This is the first video in a three part series from our free outREACH workshop. This was a series of workshops teaching actionable tips and techniques that will enhance your creative content and link-building strategy.
In this first video, Lisa Myers, the CEO and Founder of Verve Search, goes through the concept and ideation process of creative campaigns.
Lisa also discusses collaboration, research and project management and how they are also crucial to a successful campaign. You’ll learn how the right people with the right attitude can change results.
The next video in this series will be released next week.
Join us for our next event. In June, we are hosting outREACH Online Conference which is a fantastic opportunity for you, or members of your team to hear from the best SEO’s, link-developers, content creators and marketers in the industry including marketing wizard Rand Fishkin, Shannon McGuirk (Aira), Carrie Rose (Rise at Seven), our very own Lisa Myers and many many more. We hope that you’ll be able to join us for this event.
If you have any questions about this content or outREACH Online please contact us at [email protected].
outREACH Conference 2019
A huge thank you to everyone who attended this year’s outREACH conference! It may have been drizzly outside, but we had a great day and were honoured to host amazing speakers and enthusiastic attendees.
The outREACH conference is designed to give everyone a helpful insight into the professional strategies and experiences that make up the outreach world, and we at Verve are always humbled by the open sharing of knowledge we see in the expert talks and dialogues.
Kim Bjørnqvist kicked off the day’s talks with an engaging and entertaining presentation on the power of language in the clickbait age. Kim noted that all words are symbols and can be used to build worlds for communicating with the user – who, by the way, don’t see themselves as “users”…
“People want to feel unique, not just like walking wallets.”
Kim told us about the four new Ps, highlighting again how language is the strongest tool at our disposal and needs to be used to tie a product with emotions, which can then be transferred to the user. He included insightful advertising examples (and his alterations) that showed us how important it is that people have “at least one thought in their head” when viewing an advert. As he finished, Kim left us with a rousing thought!
“Brilliant ideas are seldom logical , until afterwards.”
To any doubters of link-building strategies, Verve’s own Head of Innovation James Finlayson had one message: no industry is too boring, too competitive, or too regulated for creative marketing campaigns. In his energetic talk, James highlighted that consumers are looking to buy solutions to their problems rather than any specific thing.
“Build your strategy around the user, not the product.”
James used Verve showstoppers Demolishing Modernism and Unicorn League as examples of linking ‘boring’ services and software to outstanding campaigns that, crucially, achieved top-tier links. Even B2B products, which, James argued, don’t really exist – can benefit from creative campaigns marketed and outreached in the right way. The most important thing is always to create a campaign that resonates, and manage your expectations while you’re at it.
James finished by telling us about the newly launched outREACH Slack channel available to anyone interested in all things outreach. Click here to request to join.
Shannon McGuirk of Aira Digital delivered an enlightening presentation on the roles of instincts and data when outreaching a campaign. Shannon stressed that “relying on gut feelings alone is not enough”, and that outreaching based on your instincts can yield successful hits or regrettable misses.
To find a better and more consistent solution, Shannon and her team set about scraping 35,000 articles across 6 websites. They revealed the statistically optimal days for outreaching across different news categories, which sometimes lined up with instinct, and sometimes surprised everyone.
Next on the agenda was an exciting panel led by Hannah Smith, featuring Verve’s own Head of Outreach Alex Cassidy, Hana Bednarova of Bednar Communications, andRise at Seven creative director Carrie Rose. The panellists gave us insightful tips on how to craft the perfect outreach email, as well as showing us the tools they use to contact journalists, track communications, and measure links.
An interesting question was put to the panellists: what would you tell yourself at the start of your outreach career? Alex would tell himself to “take time” and make sure to consider all angles; this may feel slow, but makes the process easier. Also, cutting data in different ways can create new angles and fresh links. Carrie advised herself (and the audience!) not to “get bogged down with metrics”, not to push too hard for a link, and to follow up on emails, showing journalists how much coverage can be gained from a fresh article. Hana highlighted the importance of building relationships with journalists and researching well.
In the afternoon, social media editor for MyLondon Sian Elvin led an insightful talk on the best ways to successfully outreach to a journalist. Her presentation was packed full of behind-the-scenes tips about best email practice, from the technical (keep to one font size!) to the practical (always read the publications you are pitching to!).
Previously a journalist at Kent Live, Sian also illustrated how important it is to tailor your outreach to local publications. Change the angle and make the data appeal to local journalists, they’ll definitely care more about your pitch.
Lots of incredible advice and experiences were shared in the Q&A session that followed with Sian Elvin and freelance journalist Alistair Charlton, led by Alex Cassidy. One particular highlight was when both agreed that sending journalists all the data and assets (high quality and usable, of course) in a Dropbox link was one of the easiest ways to reduce time-wasting back and forth communication. And is it ever OK to ring up a journalist? Best not to!
The chief growth officer at BuzzStreamStephen Panicogave a presentation on the components that make up a successful outreach campaign, and it was packed full of eureka-moment tips (when did you last deep-dive for all that archived coverage?) that got the audience thinking. Guiding us with examples of creative campaigns and link-building done well, Stephen took us through the various stages of outreach, careful to note that “not one size fits all”. For the ideation phase, we learnt about the importance of creating a campaign that resonates with current and recurring events, plus running ideas by journalists to get crucial feedback.
Our last talk of the day was given by keynote speaker David Rowan, author and founding editor of WIRED UK. David delivered an engaging presentation on how innovation is connected to the way people think, giving us ten ways to achieve it in and out of the workplace.
Empowering your people and allowing people to “just do their job” was one of his highlighted tips, using Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen as an example of a leader who has a track record of putting important decisions in the hands of his employees.
David also suggested turning products into services, pointing our attention to a small bookshop in Mayfair that beat the looming online competition (looking at you, Amazon) by launching a personalised book recommendation service.
Thank you to all our speakers and attendees for another fantastic conference. We look forward to seeing you all again next year!